The purpose of this paper is to explore the relevance of some of Marx’s methodological insights for thinking about feminist issues and politics in the context of globalization. In the short space available here, I want to set down some general observations.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of the socialist bloc, “globalization” has become the lens through which everything has to be experienced, examined, and understood. Against the view that everything we knew or thought we knew-including Marx and feminism-has to be re-theorized through the lens of globalization, I will argue instead that it is through the lens of Marx’s work and the work of those who followed in his footsteps that we can fully grasp the nature of globalization. Further, it is through the lens of Marxist-feminism that we can fully comprehend, not only the effects of globalization on women, but also the material conditions determining the ideological forms in which women understand their changing conditions of existence. Finally, to go beyond those ideological forms, I will argue, a new kind of feminism is needed, one which is fully aware of its ideological assumptions and of its historical specificity and conditions of possibility and, consequently, of the capitalist limits of gender politics.
To sketch out this argument, I will discuss the characteristics of globalization and its effects on women. I will present a Marxist critique of the concept of globalization. I will outline the theoretical and ideological polarizations within feminist thought which have emerged in the context of globalization. And I will present an alternative way of thinking about Marx, feminism and globalization which, I will argue, transcends these polarities in feminist thought and opens the way to a different theoretical and political understanding of the political options facing women in the context of globalization.
1. Working assumptions
First, what is globalization? Globalization is a de-politicized, euphemistic way to refer to the spread of capitalism over the globe. It is a fetishized way of talking about the effects of capitalist development without having to talk about capitalism itself. Using the term globalization means that one does not have to acknowledge the capitalist material basis of the phenomena lumped together under the globalization label.1
Trendy and ubiquitous, globalization is, as its market value confirms, an inherently conservative way of thinking about and analyzing current processes of social, economic, political and cultural change. The intensity, speed and dramatic effects of the economic and ideological victories of capitalism in poor, debtor countries including Eastern Europe, strengthen the notion that there are no alternatives to neo-liberal economic policies and the penetration of capitalist relations and ideologies into every corner of the globe. The globalization discourse is itself a powerful ideology that obscures the capitalist nature of these processes and their effects and, therefore, the roots, in the capitalist mode of production, of the deepening inequality and decline in living standards that afflict the majority of the world’s population, particularly the female population, since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.2
Second, what is feminism? I argue that the women’s movement is a response to the development of capitalism in the advanced industrial economies. In the advanced capitalist countries, capitalism has had contradictory effects on women. It contributed to undermining traditional forms of gender inequality while, at the same time creating new forms which, paradoxically, contributed in the long run to increased gender inequity. The capitalist economy has opened up new employment and educational opportunities for working women, especially for middle and upper middle class women. These opportunities, in turn, contribute to their ability to envision and struggle for self-determination. In the short term, there is an intensification of inequality, but in the long term, propertyless working women’s opportunity structures are changed for the better.
It is important to acknowledge that there are differences in the effects and timing of these processes, differences linked to countries’ specific characteristics, histories, levels of capitalist penetration and development, and modes of insertion in the world economy. Nevertheless, it would be possible to argue that, as capitalism developed, working women were able to leave farm work, domestic service, and home-based strategies of economic survival (e.g., taking in boarders, laundry, sewing, or producing goods for local markets) to find employment in factories, offices, department stores, schools, and eventually, professions and businesses. In the more advanced capitalist countries, like the United States, the contradictory demands of family and waged or salaried work awakened women’s resistance and contributed to the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s.
One of the main political and theoretical issues was domestic labor, a topic that led to an abundant and interesting literature as well to the rise of ideologies extolling the need for an egalitarian domestic division of labor. As I argued in a previous work,3 had most working women in the U.S. and other wealthy countries had access to full-time domestic servants, the contentious issue of the domestic division of labor would not have arisen. In Argentina, a country where capitalism had not yet created opportunities for most working class women, during the 1950s and 1960s domestic service was the main alternative for poor women, particularly the young and unmarried, and most middle class households employed maids, cooks, and nannies, on an hourly or, as was often the case, on a live-in basis. As waged labor opportunities increased in Argentina, domestic labor became more scarce, expensive, and available mainly to the very wealthy. Both the U.S. and Argentina were and continue to be characterized by gender inequality; but gender inequality assumed different forms and triggered different forms of consciousness among women.
In the U.S., women’s struggles eventually attained legal, political and ideological changes that furthered women’s incorporation in the labor force, in education, and as income-earners. In Argentina, capitalist development eventually opened up opportunities for working class women, offering them a better alternative to domestic service. The Argentine experience, however, which replicated changes that took place in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is not typical of every poor country but is useful to highlight the differences in timing and other conditions that characterize the changing effects of capitalist development on the status of women.
Furthermore, these processes are uneven; they contribute to the liberation and emancipatory objectives of the more privileged women while strengthening the oppression of working class women. For example, in the U.S. (and, very likely, in other wealthy countries) the media extols the increasing number of businesses (generally small, however) owned by women and the presence of a tiny number of women in the yearly lists of the wealthiest individuals. And the proportion of women in executive, administra- tive and managerial positions, as well as in professions previously considered “male” (e.g., medicine, law, architecture) has indeed grown since the 1970s; today over 50% of college students are women. Affirmative action and Civil Rights legislation have opened doors to women and have empowered them to fight for fair wages and better working conditions.
But despite considerable advances in women’s education, employment and income, most women still work in sex-segregated occupations and occupy the lower levels in the occupational hierarchies. Working women are still more likely to be nurses, dieticians and elementary school teachers than pilots, engineers or dentists.4 Changes are, consequently, uneven, and just as the opportunities and quality of life of educated and relatively privileged working women improve, they have worsened for the vast majority who remain trapped in low paying, sex-segregated jobs. There is no better indicator of the deepening class and socioeconomic status differences among women than the growth in the number of corporations like Merry Maids, which provide domestic servants for upper and upper middle class women and their families.5
These advances in the status of more privileged women characterized the experience of the advanced capitalist countries, where capitalist development entailed changes not just at the level of production (i.e., proletarianization and commodification) but also in property laws, the division of labor, urbanization, education, health, demographic processes (i.e., declining fertility and mortality, and lower family size), mass education and employment, as countries followed the path of Great Britain over two centuries of industrialization. Most importantly, the contradictions in capitalist development led to major political mobilizations and challenges to the status quo by organized labor and other social movements. Crucial among these was the rise of the women’s liberation movements of the late 1960s and the flourishing of academic feminism in its wake.
Once the movements died, academic feminism became the dominant venue for feminist activity, as theorizing and research became functional alternatives to feminist activism, and feminist politics, having lost its radical and socialist concerns, continued in a largely reformist, liberal path, in lobbying groups, in professional caucuses, and in multiple institutional and localized settings. These changes were conducive to the emergence of a female “aristocracy,” as different in its life chances from women in the rest of the world (except for the women in the bourgeoisie of the poorer countries) as the earlier “labor aristocracies” were from the majority of the working class.
Third, I argue that the emergence of a female aristocracy derives from the exploitation of the third world. The rise of a rich and powerful class of working women in the advanced capitalist countries was made possible because of the exploitative relationship between the imperialist countries and their colonies and neo-colonies. Because of the systemic nature of capitalist develop- ment, where the wealth of the few is predicated on the exploitation and poverty of the many, economic inequality within and between nations is unavoidable. At best, some countries “in between” (e.g., the so-called “Asian tigers”) can improve while most countries stay the same or lose ground (e.g., Argentina, Russia, or Brazil), so that the world’s “stratification profile” tends to remain relatively unchanged. In other words, structured inequality at the world level of analysis remains relatively unchanged, even though some nation states may move up or down the ladder, just as wealth and income distribution in the core or advanced capitalist countries are not substantially altered despite the fact in any given year a variable proportion of the population experiences upward and downward mobility.
By stratification profile I mean the structural distribution of wealth and income. The U.S. stratification profile, historically, remained relatively unchanged until the Reagan years, when the gap between the wealthy and the rest of the population began to intensify, a process accelerated under Bush and his tax cuts approved in 2002-2003.6 However, at the same time, sociologists could document some degree of individual and structural mobility. One could point to the decline of the industrial sector and the rise of the white collar, service, and information technology sectors of the economy, which means that more people work outside industry not just because of their “achievement motivation” but because of the decline in the demand for skilled blue collar labor. And, of course, once in a while, there are individuals who rose from the middle and even the lower strata of the working class to the capitalist class (e.g., Bill Gates, Sam Walton, Oprah) while others fell from top capitalist to lesser capitalist, or from the upper middle to the middle, in addition to the many who experienced disastrous downward mobility because of de-industrialization and downsizing.7 But the overall picture of the U.S. stratification profile is one of secular stability.
I am making the same argument about the world stratification profile. The rise of some countries (e.g., Japan, South Korea) and the fall of others (e.g., Russia, Argentina, which was the 10th-ranking economy at the beginning of the 20th century)8 does not substantially alter the proportion of the world’s wealth controlled by the core countries. Giovanni Arrighi makes this argument in his article, “World Income Inequalities and the Future of Socialism” (1990). In other words, the upward or downward mobility of individuals or of countries leaves the macro level distribution of wealth and power unchanged. It is a zero-sum game. What is historically possible for some individuals and for some nation- states is not possible for all the individuals or all the nation-states at the same time; so, while some go up, others go down and the overall division of classes or between core, periphery and semiperiphery remains, for all practical purposes, the same.
Today, the structural adjustments imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on debtor countries, which require the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies (including the privatization of formerly public sectors of the economy, deep cuts in state expenditures, the dismantling of social provisions, and the so-called flexibilization of labor contracts), have begun to turn the economic clock back in many areas of the world. Unemployment and the growth of the informal economic sector, the feminization of poverty, male and more recently female out-migration, and deepening income and wealth inequality are some of the effects of economic policies designed to service the foreign debt rather than to satisfy people’s basic needs. For the powerful and affluent, globalization may have signaled “the end of history.” However, for the vast majority of the world’s population living in the poor, debtor countries of Africa, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe, it has meant “the revenge of history,” as the dismantling of state-sponsored industrialization and adoption of the neo-liberal gospel of privatization and free markets has undermined the power of organized labor and destroyed both internal markets and national economies. (I prefer to stress the realities of the world situation by referring to poor and debtor countries, instead of using ideological or geographical metaphors such as the South, or the Third World).
Fourth, I want to argue that in understanding feminism, we need to distinguish between two levels of analysis. The first is at the level of the mode of production, while the second is at the level of social formation. One of Marx’s methodological injunctions9 is that we must differentiate between conflictual, objective macro-level processes of structural change, and the ideological ways in which people become conscious of those conflicts and fight them out. At the level of analysis of the mode of production as such, it is possible theoretically to identify the capitalist macro-level processes of surplus extraction which operate both in the world as a whole and within nation-states. At the level of analysis of social formations, however, the political, social, cultural and ideological contexts within which these processes unfold are extremely complex and diverse. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to predict, even within nation-states, the empirical effects of macro-level structural changes on social and political relations and forms of consciousness.
It is certainly the case that the global media and culture industries, together with the worldwide distribution and consumption of Western goods, exert a homogenizing effect on other cultures. I would argue, however, that the effect is superficial. The consumption of Western-style food, clothing and entertainment cannot substantially alter the role of nation-states, and of national and local cultures, in the production and reproduction of people’s earliest identities and forms of consciousness.
It may be argued that the effects of colonial and neo-colonial rule compromise the presumed integrity of national and local cultures. This may be so from the standpoint of the foreign observer. But from the standpoint of the persons raised in those contexts, in the absence of a theoretically grounded critical examination of identities and culture, who they are and how they live-and the ideologies that guide their lives-are the “real thing.” The weight of these social and ideological forces is evident in the way immigrants everywhere engage in the struggle to recreate some aspects of their homelands. That this is a losing battle, that eventually they will develop “hybrid” identities reflecting both their actual experiences as well as their “imagined communities” of origin, is beside the point. The crucial issue is the persistence, in immigrant communities, (albeit intermingled with new patterns) of customs, traditions, kinship patterns, gender roles and expectations that shape individuals’ identities and abilities to envision the possibility of change. At the same time, however, it is evident that the expansion of Western capitalism undermined the manifold traditional social and economic networks within which most people lived their lives and, consequently, the material conditions for the impact of traditional cultural, religious, ideological and moral constraints on people’s behavior. It is in the context of this complex unity of stability and change that questions about Marx, feminism, and globalization must be raised.
2. Western Individualism, Feminism, and the Critique By Postmodernists and Third World Feminists
The rise of the abstract individual, the bearer of economic, political, civil and human rights, is both a prerequisite for the development of capitalism and a continuing capitalist structural effect that contributes to its ongoing reproduction. Feminism is one of the important expressions of Western individualism. The possibility of thinking of women “as women,” and of women’s problems, rights, and needs as abstracted from the other social relations within which women’s lives are unavoidably embedded, required material conditions that arose only in the context of advanced capitalism.
Feminist ideologies, whether liberal, radical, socialist or Marxist, rest upon the conceptual bedrock of an abstract, transnational notion of women. This notion is open to criticisms similar to those levied against the abstract individual political subjects or citizens who dwell in the terrain of Western formal democracy. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of the 4th United Nations-sponsored World Conference on Women in 1995 epitomizes this theoretical and political standpoint, as captured in the slogan: “Women’s rights are human rights.” The explicit inclusion of women and girls within the scope of international human rights documents and agreements such as the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 is in itself an important step in feminist struggles. This commitment to the full panoply of human rights for women as human beings-including the right to work, own property, get credit, education, and job training; to political participation, to freedom of thought and religion; to health, sexual expression, and reproductive self-determination- raises social awareness about the magnitude of the problems facing most women in the world today, and about the many barriers that stand in the way of achieving even modest improvements in working women’s lives.
Not all of these rights, which capture the tentative achievements of Western women, are welcomed by women in the rest of the world, for they challenge deeply held cultural and religious beliefs. Depending on the context, they can be seen as eroding desirable kinship and social networks. An important debate about the deficiencies of the “women’s rights are human rights” model has been carried on within academic feminism for the past three decades. Postmodern feminist theorists as well as non-Western feminists argue that universalistic notions of women’s rights are unavoidably suspect, for they rest on an essentialist10 understanding of women and their needs.11 In addition, they express the views and the experiences of privileged Western women, thus ignoring the qualitative (i.e., substantive, not superficial) differences (of class, race, ethnicity, and national origin) between women within and among nation-states.
Women differ greatly in terms of their historically specific identities, problems, and needs. Because of the localized, narrow familial and community contexts that shape their experiences, they are necessarily thrown into different political struggles, fought with different outcomes in mind, outcomes with which Western feminists might not necessarily agree. For example, feminists in Muslim cultures might consider using the veil an act of resistance to Western imperialism, or a practice that allows women to leave their homes, preserving their modest demeanor in the light of traditional and religious demands, while being able to move freely in the process of acquiring skills and education or participating in the labor force. Similarly, for Western feminists, female genital mutilation is a heinous expression of patriarchal domination and a violation of women’s human rights. Some African feminists, on the other hand, view such criticisms as reflecting “the total lack of consideration of the particular context in which African women are struggling… it is essentially up to… African women to decide to mobilize about certain aspects of their reality-those which seem most urgently in need of change, and to decide how that struggle could be waged.”12 Non-Western feminists reject, therefore, what they perceive as an imperialist, ethnocentric agenda that essentializes non-Western women as powerless victims, oppressed by a universal and ubiquituous patriarchy. Such an agenda ob- scures the actual contexts within non-Western feminists live and the historical realities that shape their political priorities, self- understanding and actual possibilities.13
Western postmodern feminists identify essentialism as the central flaw in the liberal feminist concern to provide women everywhere with women’s rights, and to ensure that globalization does not leave women behind. In contrast, non-Western feminists focus on the powerful impact of nationalism, culture, religion and kinship in structuring women’s lives. These are forms of consciousness and responsibilities which render the feminist agenda not only unworkable but unacceptable for many women. Aihwa Ong,14 for example, points out how in Asian countries, where colonial and postcolonial struggles have been fought in terms of people’s collective interests, it is very difficult, and perhaps even antithetical to women’s self-understanding, to postulate individual rights as independent from and even superior to the interests of the state. In this context of national liberation struggles, women’s individual rights are subordinate to the state’s political and economic requirements to further the kind of economic development that would ensure the well-being of the population as a whole. State ideologies about citizens’ duties are not the only ideologies legitimating inequality. Communal, religious and kinship norms and expectations narrow the opportunities of women, legitimate the appropriation of their wages and the subordination of their needs to those of the collectivity within which they live their lives. It is within these contexts that women have to develop their own strategies towards attaining feminist objectives, strategies that acknowledge and support their loyalty to the various ideologies and networks of relations within which they must construct their lives. Such women require a vision of equality that does not entail the total rejection of their self- understanding and of their social and religious responsibilities.
There is, then, a strong polarity of views. On the one hand, we have the universalistic, liberal feminist goals expressed in documents produced by the United Nations and by innumerable NGOs all over the world. On the other, we have the postmodern and non-Western feminist critique of these goals, rejected as essentialist, and the prioritizing of cultural, religious and national differences over any universalized notion of women’s rights. I want to argue that this polarization of views expresses, at the level of ideology, the uneven material development of the capitalist world. These views are the expression, at the level of ideologies and forms of consciousness, of the enormous gap between the material conditions that shape the experiences and political consciousness of relatively privileged Western and Western educated women, on the one hand, and the vast majority of the globe’s female population, on the other.
Underlying both sides of this polarization there is an important assumption held in common. For liberal feminists, it is assumed that the goals of liberal feminism, as stated in the Beijing Declaration and countless other documents, are difficult to attain, but will eventually be reached through long and protracted political struggles. Non-Western feminists make a similar assumption. They believe that localized, alternative visions of female political, economic and social integration, which incorporate Western universalist ideals, albeit in modified forms, are capable of being realized. Postmodern feminists, on the other hand, to the extent they write about politics, and consistently with their anti-essentialist theoretical standpoint, view the political arena as fragmented in a multiplicity of local struggles concerned with ungeneralizable goals.
3. The Debates Within Feminism Echo the Debates Over Modernization Theory: Both Lead to a Dead End.
These two paths to feminist liberation are reminiscent of the debates around modernization theory from the 1950s to the 1970s. Like the modernization theories of the 1950s and early ’60s, including those of W. W. Rostow and many others,15 which postulated processes of technological and cultural diffusionism, liberal feminist thinking assumes the possibility of what might be called the “modernization of women.” They envision the attainment, by women from poorer countries, of opportunities and rights similar to those enjoyed by relatively privileged women in the advanced capitalist countries. Similarly, like non-Western critics of modernization theory,16 non-Western feminists emphasize what amounts to a multiplicity of localized roads to feminist modernization, roads that modify and at the same time preserve national, religious, and cultural differences.17
Both sides in this debate assume that the experience of the advanced capitalist countries—be it in attaining “modernization” or economic development, or in advances in the economic and political status of women correlated with modernization—can be replicated. They differ in the extent to which they believe that every country has to follow the same path to economic development (i.e., capitalist industrialization), rather than a populist “third way,” à la Juan Perón, or a socialist or communist way, like Cuba or the former Soviet Union. However, the historical record of the last fifty years has shown the failure both of modernization theory and of national development projects, whether from the right, the center or the left. The attainment of national economic development or “capitalism in one country” (i.e., advanced economic development or, in the world-systems framework, “core country” status) is as impossible as the attainment of “socialism in one country,” for capitalism from its inception has been a world system.18 As Wallerstein has persuasively argued,19 the developmentalist goal underlying bourgeois nationalist, populist, socialist and communist development strategies in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe has ended in failure.20 Despite the billions of dollars loaned to non-socialist countries, the objectives of the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, and the short term successes of state-sponsored development strategies from the left (e.g., the USSR and the socialist bloc) and the right (e.g., Argentina under Juan Perón), the so-called “developing nations” were unable to attain sustained levels of economic growth conducive to the growth of their middle strata and attainment of political as well as cultural “modernization.” “Developed” or “core state status,” whether under the aegis of capitalist, socialist or communist ideologies and development strategies, remained unattainable to most countries, with the exception of the few, like the so-called “Asian Tigers” who attained semi-periphery status. Russia, the first “underdeveloped country,”21 failed as well despite its initial successes and attainment of “superpower status”; like the far less “developed” countries of Latin America, the USSR was divided between its small, industrialized “modern” sector and its vast, poor and undeveloped hinterlands and was unable to withstand the effects of accelerating technological and economic changes in the world system. Despite its size and power, the USSR, like the rest of the underdeveloped world, was unable to escape the “laws of motion” of the capitalist world system, which, while it allows individual countries to experience upward mobility, simultaneously pushes others down so that the world stratification profile remains roughly unchanged.
Likewise, the attainment in practice of the full range of human rights or of women’s rights in every country is, to a large degree, beyond reach as long as such rights presuppose a relatively advanced degree of capitalist economic, political and legal development. States may copy Western forms of political organization and foundational documents (such as constitutions). They may go as far as passing legislation aimed at breaking down legal, economic, political and educational barriers to women’s full participation and self-determi- nation. But the actual implementation and practice of such reforms presuppose material conditions unattainable by each and every country at the same time. There are both systemic and ecological limits to the attainment, by all countries at the same time, of the status of “advanced capitalist country.” By systemic I mean rooted in the operation of capitalism as a world system.22 By ecological I mean the contradiction between the relentless capitalist pursuit of economic growth and the maintenance of environmental sustainability. These same limits are also the limits to the universal emancipation of women, whether we follow the terms of liberal feminism on the one hand or those of postmodern and Third World feminism on the other.
4. Alternative Concept of Universality Rooted in Women’s Material Conditions
From a Marxist standpoint, examining these issues at the highest level of abstraction (i.e., the mode of production)23 means that the alternative to the problems inherent in the transhistorical, universalist notions underlying Western feminism is not the uncritical “privileging” of the multiplicity of contexts that produce “diversity” among women, yielding localized struggles with limited and sometimes non-transferable objectives. (By non-transferable objectives, I mean the following. On a local level, women, depending on where they live, organize to get things which women in other parts of the world already have (e.g., access to contraceptives) or which would not be meaningful or acceptable to all women everywhere (e.g., the right not to wear a veil; the right to organize as sex workers; the right to keep their income for themselves or to travel without their father’s or any other male relative’s approval). By non-transferable I don’t mean undesirable; I mean either culturally specific, or redundant, in the sense that some battles have already been won in some places while not even attempted in others.)
Rather, the alternative is to acknowledge that there is a different kind of universality, rooted in the material conditions that shape the lives of most women on the planet: their location in the organizations of production and reproduction. The vast majority of the world’s women work for their economic survival and the survival of their families; most women also participate in the structures where reproduction, biological and social, daily and generational, takes place continuously. I am not arguing that there is an essential unity among women because production and reproduction are activities explainable in terms of their nature. I want to call attention to the fact that most women, regardless of differences associated with nationality, religion, culture, race, and so forth, are working women, engaged in tasks of reproduction and production which, while they vary in their form of organization between and, sometimes, within countries, are at the same time subject to the effects of the ups and downs of the capitalist national and world economy. For many complex and interrelated economic, demographic, political, and ideological reasons, the vast majority of the world’s working population is female; women are the poorest of the world’s poor. Seventy percent of the 1.3 billion people who live in absolute poverty are women. Women work 2/3 of the world’s working hours, produce half of the world’s food and yet earn only 10% of the world’s income and own less than 1% of the world’s property.24 Finally, most of the work entailed in the physical and social, daily and generational reproduction of the laboring, propertyless population, is done by women. Their common location in the relations of production and reproduction is a universal, yet historical, material base for their potential mobilization and political organization. This refers not to women in the abstract, but to working women who, while divided by their historically specific backgrounds, nevertheless share a common objective interest, though not always formulated or understood under “feminist” ideological principles, based on their working conditions, their earning power, and their concern for the material well being of themselves and their families.
Theoretically, at the level of analysis of the mode of production, working women’s economic interests are objectively similar to those of working men. A feminism that speaks for the interests of working women, rather than women as such, must forcefully acknowledge the self-defeating nature of feminist ideologies and political struggles that place the interests of individual women first. Such ideologies overlook the reality that women, like men, are “ensembles of social relations,” and that their well-being therefore matters to others besides themselves.
Theoretically, at this high level of abstraction, the existence of objective material interests that transcend gender stems from the common class location of propertyless men and women. But at the level of social formations and in the context of everyday social interactions, such common interests are obscured by conflictual, oppressive relations between men and women, rooted in the historical articulation between production and reproduction. These relations affect their relative power and access to key economic, political, social and cultural resources. These relations are contradictory, a unity of cooperation and oppression, and they are as powerful as class relations in shaping working men’s and women’s life chances, consciousness and identity. The concrete, observable effects of these relations, on the other hand, cannot be deduced a priori from the interests that might theoretically be imputed to them on the basis of their roots in the capitalist organization of production and reproduction; such effects will be shaped by the historically specific conditions in which people live, namely the political, legal, ideological, and cultural characteristics of the historical context (e.g., locality, region, nation-state) under consideration.
I mentioned earlier the need to follow Marx’s methodological injunction to differentiate between macro-level processes of structural change and the ideological ways that people become aware of the conflicts caused by such changes and engage in political struggles. If we look at the ways women have been mobilizing and organizing politically after the women’s liberation movements of the 1970s faded, we observe that they do so—in the advanced capitalist countries as well as in the rest of the world—around matters that directly affect their lives as working women, as mothers, and as persons responsible for the well-being of others. They mobilize around issues that affect the physical and economic survival of themselves and their families and, in the process, they struggle for the civil, economic and political rights necessary for attaining those goals. Women involved in grassroots struggles do not deploy individualistic identities. Their spontaneous, common sense understanding of themselves is thoroughly relational and shaped by their location in the relations of reproduction and production.
It is not wealthy, capitalist women who mobilize and organize to struggle for small loans, the right to an education, job training, access to birth control, health care, jobs, and better wages. It is propertyless, poor, working-class women who overwhelmingly do so. However, they act often under the leadership of educated women whose aspirations for upward mobility and economic independence are thwarted by the dominant kinship, social and political expectations. Historically, women have not mobilized exclusively under specifically feminist banners, just as class struggles have often been waged under a variety of ideological legitimations. Grassroots women’s movements organized around livelihood issues are not new, but have now proliferated all over the world in the wake of the devastation ushered in by globalization. As structural adjustments erode the availability of waged labor, men and women have had to rely on survival strategies of their own, such as migration and the production of goods and services, for sale and barter, within the growing informal sector of their countries’ economies.
From the standpoint of liberal Western feminism, grassroots movements may be celebrated as examples of women’s resilience and ingenuity, viewed as a stage in the process of development of feminist consciousness, or, depending on their ideological legitimations, seen as examples of how local customs, cultures, and patriarchal relations keep women from developing a “true” feminist consciousness. From the standpoint of postmodern feminism, such movements are not just examples of the only kind of politics possible after the demise of meta-narratives, but proof that the Enlightenment and Marxist meta-narratives have utterly failed.
From the standpoint of Marxist theory, however, these movements are examples of the ways women become conscious of the material processes that tear their lives apart, and do their best to fight for their survival and the survival of their communities. They embody a feminism which expresses itself through struggles centered around issues that include, but transcend, gender. The problems these women face are rooted, not in their identities, but in their common location in the structures of oppression which shape their lives. These structures are a complex unity of universal and particular elements: the universal is capitalism; the particular is the historically specific constellation of kinship, racial, ethnic, and religious inequalities that characterize the social formations where these movements emerge.
Rather than postulating the abstract trilogy of race, gender and class, and/or abstract interlockings of oppressions including and going beyond the standard reference to the trilogy25 routinely invoked in the literature these days, Marxist theory directs our attention to two areas: (1) the material conditions that affect women’s experiences and problems; and (2) the diverse single or combined forms26 (e.g., gender, ethnic, national origin, racial, or cultural) in which women become conscious of their collective needs and struggle to attain their goals. These forms of consciousness can range from sophisticated theoretical analyses to spontaneous common sense understanding of their responsibilities as wives and mothers. All of them are the ideological ways in which women construct their identities, become aware of their needs, and envision their goals. These diverse forms of consciousness should not be construed as the only level of analysis within which these phenomena should be theorized. It is important to link these forms of consciousness to their historical conditions of possibility; i.e., to the processes of social change that were conducive to their political mobilization and organization.
Once feminist theory acknowledged the historical heterogeneity of real women and exploded into a myriad of feminisms of difference, the feminist political subject became extraordinarily elusive, fragmented along every conceivable axis of difference.27 Marxist theory illuminates the underlying material conditions, common to all propertyless women, which are key to understanding the limits of theories and politics which ignore the capitalist basis of women’s lives. Women’s struggles against capitalism, whether self-consciously anti-capitalist and anti-globalization or cloaked in different forms of ideological legitimation, are object lessons on the relevance of Marx’s profound insight: that we are an ensemble of social relations and it is as such that we do everything we do, including struggling for economic survival and social and political rights. Underlying the historical and cross-cultural variability in the ideologies and identities deployed in women’s resistance to globalization is their common location in the modes of production and reproduction.
Feminism in the era of globalization has to be a Marxist feminism, a feminism that, while supporting struggles for rights and opportunities that matter to all women, courageously acknowledges that all women do not share the same class interests. Such a feminism must see that most of the world’s women are working women, whether or not they are proletarianized, and that it is on these grounds that a new kind of feminist theorizing and politics could emerge. This is how I envision the relation between Marx and what I call a working women’s feminism in the era of globalization. Marxist theory illuminates the common location of most women in the mode of production, as the most oppressed and exploited members of the world’s working classes. At the same time, it illuminates the structures of power and domination and hierarchical relations that underlie the cultural, religious, ideological, national, and ethnic differences among women. More importantly, Marxist theory indicates the limits of struggles for women’s rights in a context where the practice of those rights might be forever deferred, given the systemic barriers to the attainment of substantive changes in the standard of living and quality of life for most of the world’s population, male and female. While acknowledging the importance of those economic, social and political rights, it shows the need to remain aware that success in the struggles for those rights is not the point of arrival, but the point of departure, a first step in the struggle for systemic change. Women’s struggles, which stress the importance of subordinating profits to the satisfaction of people’s material and spiritual needs, point the way to the objectives any sustainable alternative to capitalism must fulfill in order to foster people’s ability to live up to their potential.
1. Martha E. Gimenez, “The Global Fetish,” Latin American Perspectives (November 2002), 85-87.
2. For critical assessments of globalization see Jerry Mander & Edward Goldsmith, The Case Against the Global Economy: And For a Turn Toward the Local (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996); Sheila Rowbotham & Stephanie Linkogle, eds., Women Resist Globalization: Mobilizing for Livelihood and Rights (Zed Books, 2001); Joseph E. Stiglitz, Globalization and its Discontents (W.W. Norton & Co., 2002).
3. Martha E. Gimenez, “The Dialectics
of Waged and Unwaged Work: Domestic Labor and Household Survival in the United States,” in Jane L. Collins & Martha E. Gimenez, eds., Work without Wages: Domestic Labor and Self-Employment within Capitalism (Albany: SUNY University Press, 1990), 25-45.
4. See Francine D. Blau, Marianne A. Ferber & Anne E. Wingler, The Economics of Women, Men, and Work, 3rd ed. (Prentice Hall, 1998), chs. 6 & 7.
5. For a trenchant analysis of this phenomenon, see Barbara Ehrenreich, “Maid to Order: The Politics of Other Women’s Work,” Harper’s (April, 2000), 59-70.
6. Kevin Phillips, The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath (Random House, 1990).
7. See, e.g., Katherine S. Newman, Falling From Grace: The Experience of Downward Mobility in the Middle Class (Free Press, 1988) and Declining Fortunes: The Withering of the American Dream (Basic Books, 1993).
9. In the Preface to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (International Publishers, 1970 ), 21.
10. Essentialism is a form of conceptualizing women as if they shared a common universal nature; it postulates an ahistorical, universal commonality among women that transcends historical and crosscultural differences. Essentialist views about women can be based on women’s biology (e.g., their reproductive capacity), psychology (e.g., their inherently nurturant traits) or historical experiences, when those experiences are universalized (e.g., Western feminists’ assumptions that domestic labor is a universal form of oppression suffered by all women). See, for example, Ann Brooks, Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms (Routledge, 1997), 20-21.
11. For discussions of essentialism and its implications see, e.g., Linda Alcoff, “Cultural Feminism versus Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory,” in Micheline Malson et al., eds., Feminist Theory in Practice and Process (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1989), 295-326; Caroline Ramazanoglu, Feminism and the Contradictions of Oppression (New York: Routledge, 1989).
12. Edvige Bilotti, “The Practice of Genital Mutilation,”
13. Ramazanoglu (n. 11), Part Two; Chandra T. Mohanty, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres, Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (Indiana University Press, 1991).
14. Aihwa Ong, “Strategic Sisterhood or Sisters in Solidarity? Questions of Communitarianism and Citizenship in Asia,” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies (Fall, 1996).
15. See, e.g., M. Levy, Jr., Modernization and the Structure of Societies (Princeton University Press, 1966); W. W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth, 3rd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1991); Alex Inkeles, Becoming Modern (Harvard University Press, 1974).
16. See, e.g., Samir Amin, Unequal Development (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976), and Fernando Henrique Cardoso & Enzo Faletto, Dependency and Development in Latin America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).
17. Ramazanoglu, Part Three.
18. While Bolshevik theory postulated that the success of the Russian revolution depended on the spread of revolution throughout Europe and beyond, Stalinist theory introduced the notion of socialism in one country in 1924, after Lenin’s death. Modernization theory and the development projects of the 1950s and 1960s assumed that it was possible for single countries to attain “capitalism in one country,” irrespective of the place of that country within the world economy. If the systemic nature of capitalism as the dominant mode of production in the world is acknowledged, it becomes clear that the extent to which individual nation-states can “develop” and “modernize,” thus achieving upward mobility within the capitalist world system, is circumscribed by complex political and economic networks beyond the control of a single nation-state.
19. Immanuel Wallerstein, After Liberalism (New York: New Press, 1995); see esp. “The Concept of National Development, 1917-1989: Elegy or Requiem?”
20. It would be beyond the scope of this paper to present and assess the merits of the different arguments scholars have advanced to explain the failure of export substitution development strategies in the poor and relatively poor countries, and the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellites.
21. Teodor Shanin, Russia as a “Developing Society” (Yale University Press, 1985).
22. Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System (Academic Press, 1974).
23. In Capital, Marx presents, at the highest level of abstraction, his theory of how the capitalist mode of production functions, and explains its structures, processes, tendencies and contradictions as if capitalism existed in a pure state, unaffected by nature and history. But in the real world, we do not observe the capitalist mode of production as such; at a lower level of abstraction we observe what Wallerstein (1983), for example, calls “historical capitalism,” or what marxist theorists like Poulantzas call social formations. This key theoretical distinction between the level of analysis of the mode of production and the level of social formations is expressed by Marx as follows: “The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus labor is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers… which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state. This does not prevent the same economic basis—the same from the standpoint of its main conditions—due to innumerable different, empirical circumstances, natural environments, racial relations, external historical influence, etc., from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances” (vol. 1 : 791-792). Consequently, to theorize at the level of the mode of production and reproduction means to identify structures, processes and contradictions common to all the social formations (e.g., regions, nation-states) where the capitalist mode of production is dominant which, in turn, affect people in similar ways. Arguments made at the level of the mode of production, however, must be qualified by the “innumerable differences, empirical circumstances…” etc., characteristic of the social formations under consideration.
24. National Council of Women’s Organizations, Facts on Women:
25. The race, gender and class social perspective, which emerged in the early 1990s, has acquired enormous visibility as demonstrated by the proliferation of journal articles and books with “race, gender and class” in their titles, and the creation of a large and growing section within the American Sociological Association and a journal, Race, Gender & Class, originally called Race, Sex & Class. This perspective emerged as a reaction to feminist theories that neglected racial, ethnic and class differences among women, and as a corrective to Marxism’s alleged shortcomings. The routine invocation of this trilogy through the use of a variety of descriptive metaphors (e.g., race, gender and class form a “matrix” of oppression; they are “interacting,” “interweaving,” or “interlocking,”) is insufficient to advance our understanding of the nature of the relations this perspective considers to be fundamental. For examples of this literature see Patricia Hill Collins, “Toward a New Vision: Race, Class and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection.” Race, Sex & Class (Fall, 1993), 25-45; Jean A. Belkhir, “The Failure and Revival of Marxism in Race, Gender & Class Issues.” Race, Sex & Class (Fall, 1994), 79-107; Margaret L. Andersen & Patricia Hill Collins, eds. Race, Class and Gender: An Anthology (Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1995); Paula Rothenberg, ed., Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study, 5th ed. (Worth Publishing, 2000). For critical assessments of the trilogy see Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Blackwell, 1996), 56-60, and Martha E. Gimenez, “Marxism and Class, Gender and Race: Rethinking the Trilogy.” Race, Gender & Class (Spring, 2001).
26. For example, whether women of Mexican ancestry will self-identify in the U.S. as Mexican-American (an ethnic marker), as Mexican (in the sense of national origin, likely to be chosen by newly arrived immigrants), as Mexican-American women, as Hispanic women, or as Latinas depends on their social class, citizenship status, education, region of the country where they live, the visibility of women’s organizations and activism where they live, and the effects of the U.S. policies of racial and ethnic classification prevalent at the time, among other factors.
27. Ramazanoglu, Parts Two and Three; Alcoff (n. 11); Christine DiStefano, “Dilemmas of Difference: Feminism, Modernity, and Postmodernism,” in Linda Nicholson, ed., Feminism/Postmodernism (Routledge, 1999) 37-45; Brooks, in ibid., 92-113.
I am grateful to Hester Eisenstein for her editorial comments and suggestions.